The mass trespass movement, which reached its peak ninety years ago at Kinder Scout in Derbyshire, remains one of the starkest examples of hand-to-hand class conflict in British history. But the landowners who resisted the working-class ramblers accessing their land, of course, stayed away from the violence — instead outsourcing it to their gamekeepers. In Barry Hines’s novel The Gamekeeper, written and set decades later, in 1975, a minor character tells a joke that sums up how Britain’s ruling class has always relied on others doing its dirty work:
The old Duke was out walking on one of his moors, when he came on this miner with a gun under his arm. Anyroad, they had a right argy-bargy about private property and trespassing and such like, and in the end the Duke finished up saying, “Do you know my ancestors had to fight for this land, my man?” And the miner said, “Right then, get your coat off and I’ll fight you for it now.”
Like police officers and soldiers, these professional hunters occupy an uneasy place in Britain’s class system. Where they differ, however, is that they are privately employed — accountable directly to the landowning aristocracy without even the veneer of democratic oversight. It was fitting that it was gamekeepers who carried the late Queen Elizabeth II to her hearse at Balmoral on Sunday: for while she owned the Scottish castle purely on account of her status as monarch, it is technically part of the Windsors’ “private estate” — unlike Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, which are state assets.
Another five decades on from The Gamekeeper’s original publication — over which it has mostly been out of print — And Other Stories has republished Hines’s novel with a newly discovered foreword by John Berger. It’s no wonder — not only has nature writing become wildly popular as readers seek solace and build resistance to environmental degradation, but the class relations it depicts are still as current as ever before.
George Purse, the title character of The Gamekeeper, is a former steelworker who has uprooted his family from a modern council estate to the nearby countryside. He has done so in pursuit of individuality and the natural world, in which he feels most at home — but this has required an immense personal compromise. His job, poorly paid and requiring long hours exposed to the elements every day of the year, is to prime the countryside for the hunting season — breeding pheasants and grouse and hunting their natural predators to save them for the bullets of aristocrats. In the typical sardonic tone that makes the narrative so overtly political, Hines observes: “George Purse never killed anything for fun. He only killed to protect his pheasants, which were then killed by other people for fun.”
On the one hand, Purse has adopted the class interest of his employers as his own. “They all ought to be gassed in their beds like they do rabbits,” he says of a local family prone to trespass and poach. “The way they talk back to you; you’d think they’d the right to trespass. You’d think that the woods belong to them.” But somewhere inside of him remains the same class consciousness that powered him as a union shop steward in the steelworks. When a wildcat strike breaks out among the “beaters” — the casual laborers employed to scare pheasants and grouse into the air so aristos and industrialists can shoot them down — Purse tells them to aim higher in their wage claim. He and his fellow keeper Charlie Taylor had “poached the Duke’s land before they had become gamekeepers,” and in spite of crossing the line, “their early experiences and loyalties reasserted themselves.”
Indeed, without breaking the rules that he himself enforces on his former workmates, Purse cannot even make a decent living. His life is full of shady exchange agreements with traders and sly drinking sessions — in which he is sometimes schooled in the politics that, despite his denial, he probably understands better than anyone else. These passages of dialogue act as a check on the reader as well as Purse — while exhibiting the daily hardship of the job amid the changing seasons, Hines’s descriptions of the natural world are so vivid and atmospheric that he has to pull us back from their allure.
Hines, who died in 2016, is best known for his novel A Kestrel for a Knave, which tells the story of a troubled teenage boy from a mining family who finds the passion and love missing from his home and school life in rearing and training a bird of prey. It was adapted for the screen as Kes by Ken Loach, Britain’s foremost socialist filmmaker of the past century. Loach also adapted The Gamekeeper, but despite the picture being selected for Cannes, it was only shown on regional British television and was — like the book — largely forgotten thereafter. This was perhaps thanks to the explicitness of the politics in The Gamekeeper: as Hines himself observed, both book and film are “about class, not gamekeepers.”
A Kestrel for a Knave also deals in socialist politics: its protagonist is a victim of the 11-plus system that segregated English secondary schools by ability until the 1970s (and still persists in pockets of England as well as Northern Ireland). Widely perceived as about the relationship between a child and the natural world, it has been allowed to slip into the mainstream, becoming a set text in school exams.
The Gamekeeper is a darker story, hinging, as Berger writes in the foreword, upon “a near-despair with a profoundly proletarian origin.” While Billy Casper, the protagonist of A Kestrel for a Knave, has his whole life ahead of him even at the book’s devastating conclusion, George Purse is middle-aged and isolated, unable to shake off his cynicism and self-loathing. But though Purse is cruel, his cruelty is a product of a cruel system. It’s a system that seems feudal at first sight — but Hines deftly demonstrates how it has adapted to support modern capitalism. As Purse finds a space in his Shooter’s Year Book to note down the details of teenage poachers, his eyes pass over a reference to the Game Conservancy, which Hines informs us is subsidized by the industrial firm producing “eighty per cent of all the cartridges shot off in Britain each season.”
Hines details the practices of gamekeeping as if we might want to follow the profession ourselves — but such passages are peppered with reminders that Purse is deploying his immense skillset for the benefit only of wealth extraction and upper-class “sport.” The Gamekeeper is therefore less an instruction manual for gamekeeping and more a primer on how land ownership in the capitalist age forces all of nature — animals and people alike — to work in the service of the few. While some societies have legislated for a “right to roam,” this is increasingly under threat — from Britain’s draconian policing act to Australia’s system for native title claims, which is heavily stacked in the favor of corporations wishing to exploit natural resources under Aboriginal homelands. Until we raise our ambition from mere access to pursue the common ownership of land, the interests that underpin the tragedy of The Gamekeeper will be left unchecked.